- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

If you like Thai food, you’ve probably enjoyed the essence of lemon grass. You may have sampled it elsewhere without being aware of it because the aromatic herb, with a lemony scent and a flavor that recalls lemon zest, is being tucked into dishes beyond the world of Thai cooking.

Sure, lemon grass is popular in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, notably those of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, but it also perfumes other cuisines — those of Laos, Cambodia and Burma, called Myanmar. It is even appearing in French and Pan-Asian dishes.

Traditionally, Thai and Indonesian cooks add lemon grass to meat, poultry, seafood and vegetable curries, often with coconut milk and chilies. Or they pound it with garlic, chilies and spices to make curry pastes.

In Vietnamese kitchens, lemon grass is especially popular for flavoring beef broth, which is used as the basis for numerous soups. You may have come across them in pho restaurants, which specialize in flavorful noodle soups enhanced with slices of meat, rice noodles, bean sprouts and a profusion of fresh herbs.

Cooks in Sri Lanka add the herb to fish and seafood dishes. Suharshini Seneviratne, author of “Exotic Tastes of Sri Lanka” (Hippocrene Books), recommends using it in a mild whitefish curry with coconut milk, ginger and garlic, and in a spicy squid curry with chilies and roasted curry powder. Lemon grass also flavors some Caribbean stews.

Yet lemon grass is not just for spicy cuisines. French chefs appreciate the subtle flavor. I first encountered the fragrant herb in Paris, a city with a sizable Vietnamese population. There the herb was woven into the local cuisine.

It was used to infuse shellfish liquids and fish stock, which were then turned into butter sauces to go along with poached fish. Infusion is a great way to take advantage of the flavor of lemon grass, which can permeate a liquid. That is why it is so good in pickles and marinades.

My neighbors grow lemon grass because it makes a tasty tea. Steep a few pieces in a teapot with tea leaves, and it imparts a wonderful flavor and aroma to the brew.

You can also use it on its own or paired with ginger root slices to make an herbal tea. Or for dessert, make a lemon grass syrup and turn it into sorbet or add lemon grass to milk or cream and freeze it for ice cream. Lemon grass can enhance all sorts of recipes.

With the increasing availability of Asian ingredients in North America, local chefs have come up with many new ways to use lemon grass. My friend Akasha Richmond, author of “Hollywood Dish” (Avery), uses lemon grass to flavor matzo ball soup. She simmers lemon grass and ginger in chicken broth, then strains it before adding basil-jalapeno matzo balls.

For chicken curry with daikon radish, she cooks lemon grass slices in the sauce but removes them before serving because they are too fibrous to be eaten. Lemon grass can be left in a dish if it has been ground, pounded or finely chopped.

Akasha has other good ideas for using lemon grass. She told me she loves to add it to the pan when she poaches shrimp or chicken, not only for the delicate flavor it imparts to the main ingredient, but also because it gives her the basis of a soup.

After poaching chicken with lemon grass, ginger root, onions, shallots and garlic, she cooks carrots and butternut squash in the broth, then blends it to make a healthful, rich-tasting soup.

The pale, gray-green stalks of fresh lemon grass are available in Asian markets and some supermarkets. It keeps for two or three weeks in the refrigerator. Some Asian groceries also carry dried lemon grass. If it is to be cooked only briefly, it should be soaked until softened before adding to a dish.

Use only the lower, thick portion of the lemon grass stalk for recipes that call for pounding, slicing or chopping the herb. Before cutting it, peel off the layer of tough outer leaves. The upper part of the stalk is too fibrous to be eaten but can be cut into pieces with scissors or a knife and added to liquid to impart a distinctive herby lemon flavor.

Braised cod with lemon grass tomato sauce

Serve this light French-style entree with rice pilaf. You can also prepare this dish with fillets of haddock, ling cod, snapper or halibut.

About 1 1½-inch piece lemon grass to make 1 tablespoon minced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon dried leaf thyme

Butter or oil for dish

1 medium shallot, minced

1½ pounds fillets of scrod or cod

1 tablespoon dry white wine

1/3 cup fish stock or 1/4 cup bottled clam juice mixed with 1 tablespoon water

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut in 1½-inch pieces

Peel off tough outer layers of lemon grass and cut off tough thin tops. Chop more tender inner part of thick stalk to make 1 tablespoon minced lemon grass. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, and thyme. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are very soft and sauce is thick, about 35 minutes. Sauce will be chunky.

Generously butter or oil a 10-cup oval gratin dish or other heavy shallow baking dish; sprinkle with shallot. Cut an oval piece of parchment paper to size of dish and butter paper.

Arrange fish pieces in baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle fish with wine and salt and pepper to taste. Pour fish stock into small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Pour over fish. Set buttered paper directly on fish.

Bake in preheated 425-degree oven until fish is opaque, about 9 minutes per inch of thickness. For thin fillets, look at surface of fish to see whether it has lost its raw color.

For fillets thicker than 3/4 inch, insert a cake tester or thin skewer into thickest part of fish for about 5 seconds and touch tester to underside of your wrist; it should be hot to touch. If fish is not quite done, bake another 2 minutes and test again.

Remove fish carefully to platter with two wide slotted spatulas, reserving cooking liquid. Cover fish with the buttered paper to keep it warm. Remove any large shallot pieces stuck to fish.

Strain braising liquid and add to tomato sauce. Add garlic and lemon grass and boil, stirring often, until thickened, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Meanwhile, boil zucchini in large pan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well. Discard any liquid from fish platter. Coat fish with sauce. Spoon zucchini around it. Serve remaining sauce separately. Makes 4 servings.

Thai vegetable curry with tofu

This basic curry recipe is good for all sorts of vegetables. You’ll find Thai curry pastes in Asian markets and many supermarkets. Sometimes they are labeled chili paste. Serve this curry with jasmine rice or noodles. If you don’t have fish sauce, substitute soy sauce.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

½ pound Chinese or Japanese eggplant, cut in 1½-inch cubes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 shallot, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon packaged Thai red or green chili paste

1 14-ounce can coconut milk

3 2-inch pieces lemon grass

1 red bell pepper, cut in strips

2 teaspoons sugar

1 to 2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla), or more to taste

1 12-ounce package firm tofu, cut in 1-inch cubes

½ cup shelled fresh or frozen peas

Water, if needed

½ cup small Thai basil leaves or 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a saute pan. Add eggplant and salt and pepper to taste, and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until it loses its raw color. Remove from pan. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat briefly.

Add shallot and garlic, and cook over low heat for 1 minute. Stir in chili paste, then 11/4 cups coconut milk and lemon grass and bring to a boil. Simmer over medium-low heat for 3 minutes, stirring often.

Add pepper strips, sugar and 1 tablespoon fish sauce, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add remaining coconut milk and bring to boil. Return eggplant to pan and add tofu and peas. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes or until eggplant is tender.

If sauce is too thick, gradually stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons water. Remove lemon grass pieces. Taste, and add more fish sauce, salt or pepper, if needed. Turn off heat add basil leaves or cilantro. Serve hot. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Duck with lemon grass

In this Vietnamese dish, the lemon grass is combined with garlic, soy sauce and onion as an easy marinade and flavoring for the duck. Serve the duck with rice and stir-fried vegetables.

1 medium duck (about 4½ to 5 pounds)

3 lemon grass stalks

½ medium onion, quartered

3 garlic cloves, peeled

4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided

3 tablespoons white wine

Cayenne pepper

To prepare duck for baking, pull out and discard fat. Cut off wing tips, if desired. Cut each leg from body.

Cut along backbone with heavy knife or poultry shears to split bird in half. Open bird flat. Cut off backbone. Then cut breast in half along breastbone. Cut off neck skin with excess fat.

To make marinade, discard outer leaves, upper half and tough base (about 1 inch from bottom) of each lemon grass stalk. Cut stalks in thin slices, then chop in food processor to make about 3/4 cup chopped. Place in a bowl.

Add onion and garlic to food processor and chop. Return lemon grass to processor, add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and process to blend ingredients until finely ground. Transfer to a bowl. Stir in remaining soy sauce, wine and cayenne pepper to taste.

Prick skin of quartered duck without piercing meat. Separate skin from meat at edges of each piece. Put duck in shallow baking dish and add marinade.

Rub marinade into duck pieces and under skin. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 6 hours, turning pieces from time to time. Remove duck from marinade, removing excess pieces of onion mixture but leaving on mixture adhering to duck; reserve marinade.

Put duck pieces, skin side up, on a rack set in a roasting dish. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Turn pieces over, spoon marinade mixture generously over them, and roast about 20 to 30 more minutes, or until duck is tender. (Juices that run from leg when it is pricked with a fork should be clear.)

Just before serving, transfer duck pieces to broiler or grill. Broil or grill 3 to 4 minutes per side or until deep brown. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

Indonesian green bean stew

For this easy dish, the beans are flavored with lemon grass, garlic, coriander, cumin and hot red pepper flakes. Traditionally, this recipe calls for coconut milk, but I have omitted it to keep the dish light. If you want to use coconut milk, use 1/3 to ½ cup and reduce the amount of broth accordingly.

3/4 pound green beans, ends removed, broken in 3 pieces

Salt

1/3 cup coarsely chopped onion

2 large garlic cloves, peeled

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon turmeric

1/4 to ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth

1 2-inch piece fresh lemon grass

1 plum tomato, halved, seeded and chopped

Hot sauce to taste, optional

Cooked white rice

Add beans to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered over high heat 5 minutes or until not quite tender-crisp. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well. Grind onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric and hot red pepper flakes to a paste in a blender or mini food processor.

Heat oil in saucepan, add spice mixture and saute over low heat 1 minute. Add broth and lemon grass and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Add tomato and boil for 2 minutes or until sauce thickens to taste. Discard lemon grass.

Add beans, sprinkle with salt and cook uncovered over medium heat until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Add more hot red pepper flakes or hot sauce, if desired. Serve hot with rice. Makes 2 servings.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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